I have followed Neil Gaiman’s career since the early nineties when he recreated the obscure DC-comics character, the Sandman, into a hero for the Goth-crowd of all ages and both sexes and subsequently managed to bring what was a rather complex mythological story into the mainstream. He played an important part in getting girls into comics, as the world of the Sandman was almost void of spandexclad heroes of any kind – or pneumatically enhanced women. While more cerebral than the average comic, the Sandman still contained a sufficient sense of adventure and mystery to appeal to boys, or rather young men well versed in the language of comics. Of course, I’m simplifying.
As the Sandman-series hit its stride, DC decided to separate some of their comics from the DC-main staple and release them under the new Vertigo-imprint, a sub-division of DC specializing in “quality comics for mature readers”. Gaiman, together with what DC at the time considered “respected” writers of slightly off-beat comics, such as Peter Milligan (Shade, the Changing Man), Grant Morrison (Doom Patrol, Animal Man), ensured that the new imprint was an unmitigated success. But while the others certainly delivered eccentric comics with an artistic quality above the ordinary, it was clearly Gaiman who was the superstar in terms of fandom and sales.
(I can parenthetically remark that the godfather of this “British wave” in the American comics industry was Alan Moore, who had shown the adult face of comics in America with his take on Swamp Thing and – of course – Watchmen. But after DC had “fucked him over” one time too many, he at this stage refused to have anything to do with the company).
It was thus seemingly a brave move by DC to accommodate Gaiman’s wishes when he announced he had come to the end of his Sandman-saga. The “normal” course would have been to leave the title in other hands, but DC agreed to stop the flagship title of Vertigo, even while some feared it could spell the end for the “alternative” imprint. On the other hand, they probably had every interest in remaining on good terms with Gaiman, and seeing the debacle they’d been engaged in with Alan Moore, they probably decided they couldn’t well afford to anger their other superstar.
I think Gaiman’s work in the comics industry has been rather scattershot since his Sandman-days. While he wrote some brilliant graphic novels (all with regular collaborator Dave McKean), such as Signal to Noise, Mr. Punch and Violent Cases before or during his Sandman-run, the material he’s been working on since has been less than stellar (a graphic novel starring Alice Cooper, of all things), including his brief return to the Sandman mythology in some stand-alone issues. As a result I gradually lost interest in Gaiman, feeling he kind of felt he had told the stories he had wanted to tell within the medium and that this explained why his plots felt a bit tired and worn in his later works.
I knew a bit of his literary output outside comics before picking up a copy of American Gods, a book he wrote back in 2001. I’ve read a short story collection, Angels & Visitations, which contained, as I recall, one very good story (Murder Mysteries), some merely OK and some bland. I also have skimmed his Stardust (with Charles Vess) which they made into an entertaining little film, Mirrormask (the film version not quite as entertaining), and Neverwhere (made into a low budget TV-series with some decent bits, or so they tell me). So it wasn’t with very high hopes I came to American Gods, and I actually only bought it because it was on sale for about $5.
I must say, however, that I was pleasantly surprised. American Gods is no masterwork, but what it does it does well. For one thing, Gaiman’s love of storytelling is certainly present here on pretty much every page. The book is long – and some would say overlong, myself included – but when the words leap so easily off the page and into the reader’s imagination, I feel inclined to overlook this. One of Gaiman’s strengths has always been to have the fantastic elements exist in a very recognizable world. I think this is among the most important lessons any writer of fantasy should take home. The fantastic is never that fantastic if it takes place in a world already out of the ordinary. If we can readily recognize character traits and find that the dialogues ring true, we are more willing to follow any deviation of normality as something that could actually happen, or if it couldn’t happen, maybe it should.
As for the story Gaiman tells, it seems worth telling. It’s based on the old idea that a god is only as strong as the believers in the god – or the numbers of believers – and when the god is no longer remembered, the god dies or at best lives out his mythical life as a marginalized existence. What, then, if all the people from all over the world that at a point in history came to America also brought with them their gods? Can the old gods from the old world compete with the new gods of technology, money and fame? This set up leaves Gaiman plenty of room to spin a number of tales from his vast reservoir of mythological knowledge and imagination. But in the middle of this extraordinary element, Gaiman manages to create a quite rounded character in his protagonist, Shadow, who acts and reacts pretty much like a normal human being, and as I mentioned, this is where other writers in similar genres could take a cue from Gaiman.
For some reason I seem to mention Stephen King quite often in these posts, and this is no exception. Gaiman is, I think, the better, or more adventurous, writer of the two, but King is a close relative to this kind of novel; a bit more of a prude (Gaiman doesn’t shy away from human – and non-human – sexuality), a bit less inclined to do research (maybe Gaiman invents some of the mythologies of this book, but many seem to be founded on existing ones – or once existing), and quite a bit more American, but something about the tone of American Gods reminded me of much of King’s work. (Although I should note that King hasn’t written a good book in the last twenty years, with the exception of some non-fiction). American Gods is also a much better plotted book than most of Kings output, and impressively so, for it can’t have been easy to juggle all the different stories. (King’s excuse is that he doesn’t plot, just writes and sees where it takes him. I suspect this is either not entirely true, or he is very good at rewrites).
One could argue that some of the mysteries of this book are quite frankly not mysterious enough. The mystical man that calls himself Wednesday is easily recognized (even by the name itself) if one has even a fleeting knowledge of Norse Mythology. The murder mystery that is suddenly introduced toward the middle of the book is relatively easily solved as well. I won’t say more about this, so as not to spoil it for other readers, but I have a feeling that Gaiman was trying to reach as wide an audience as possible with the book, and while I guess there’s nothing wrong with that, I miss some of the ambiguities he proved capable of in, for example, Mister Punch.
All in all, though, American Gods is entertaining and at times it is more. I picked this book to have something to read at the beach, and I managed to stick to that intention until the last 150 pages of the book when I thought to hell with it and finished it in my good chair normally reserved for what I pompously and snobbishly would deem weightier (worthier?) literature in everything but physical weight. I guess that is a compliment to the novel, if very off hand.